New Orleans Jazz Fest for beginners

Mardi Gras is next week, which is New Orleans' biggest party.  But what about taking a trip down to the Big Easy this spring for the city's second biggest party -- New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival?

With more than 500 acts scheduled,  it's one of the hottest music tickets of the year.  Big names are on the bill, including John Mayer, the reunited Beach Boys, Tom Petty, The Eagles, Foo Fighters, My Morning Jacket, Ne-Yo and the Zac Brown Band, to name a few. In an 11th-hour surprise, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band will also perform.

But navigating the massive festival, which attracts tens of thousands of fans from around the globe for the music, food and crafts, is no Big Easy.

So FoxNews.com reached out to the experts to get some insider's advice on what you'll need, where you should go, and some shortcuts you can take along the way.

But first, some basics. For those who've never been to JazzFest, it's quite a party.  Established in April 1970, the 10-day cultural fest, which normally draws about 400,000 visitors, is comprised of thousands of musical acts, delicious Crescent City food and an international crafts fair.

This year the music kicks off on April 27 and runs until May 6, with the headline events mainly occurring on the weekends.  Gates at the New Orleans Fair Grounds Race Course, where the festivities will take place, open from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., which allows plenty of time to explore all there is to offer. The grounds will have 12 different stages where you will hear everything from jazz to rock to pop to R&B to Zydeco and Cajun. Tickets cost $40 per day. 

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Practical Tips for the Virgin

For the Jazz Fest virgin, the sights, sounds and smells can be overwhelming.  Jennifer Day-Sully, director of communications for the New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau, says to come hungry.  With over 70 food booths, the local and international cuisine is a large part of the experience. With numerous options of Cajun and international fare, Jazz Fest offers everything from po’boys, to Étouffée (fish stew over rice), to boudin (a type of sausage), to beignets (like a donut), to muffulettas (a New Orleans submarine sandwich), to gumbo. Even if you haven’t heard of half of this cuisine, try it all. Your taste buds will thank you.

The top five suggestions from Day-Sully: the cochon de lait po’boy (juicy, roasted pork sandwiched in between two piece of French bread), the fried shrimp po’boy, the crawfish monica (crawfish pasta in a secret sauce) the pheasant, quail and andouille gumbo (a delicious Cajun stew in a dark roux) and the crawfish bread (bread stuffed with crawfish and cheese). Is your mouth watering yet?

Also Day-Sully says mentally prep for large crowds. While you’ll see lighter crowds on Thursdays and earlier in the day, when it comes to big name performances, seasoned Jazz Fest goers typically camp out at the stages several hours prior to a performance.

New Orleans weather is unpredictable and the Fair Grounds tend to be muddy, so bring lawn chairs, an umbrella, and garbage bags, which double as a raincoat and a dry place to sit. The Louisiana heat can be unforgiving, so pack your sunscreen and a hat too.

Do not forget toilet tissue, as you are sharing those port-o-potties with 400,000 others.

To avoid the heavy crowds, walk on the circular horse racing track around the perimeter of the Fair Grounds, and venture out to the grandstands for food demonstrations, art installations, shade and clean restrooms.

While you’re at it, go to the Gospel or Blues tent to discover new bands. Also, get a copy of the official performance schedule and laminate it (the “cubes” schedule- days, times, stages- are released in March 2012).

Last but not least, remember the Fest ends at 7 pm, which gives you a chance to venture out into the city and experience the nightlife of New Orleans.

After Dark

There are endless entertainment and dining venues options in New Orleans on a regular evening, but during Jazz Fest you can find an assortment of specials on music, food and of course drinks. Bourbon Street is obvious for a non-stop party atmosphere, but go beyond the Crescent City staple.

“The spirit of the festival doesn’t end at 7 pm,” Day-Sulley says. “That energy is transferred throughout the city.”

The Rock-n-Bowl has highly recommended jazz night shows. For a local, New Orleans music scene, Frenchmen Street area, the local version of Bourbon, is an entertainment district within walking distance of the French Quarter in the Marigny neighborhood with the B&B’s. Here, you can hear anything from blues, jazz, blue grass, and reggae. Preservation Hall is another classic venue to hear the sounds of New Orleans, but it is small  so make sure you get their early.

As far as food outside the parade grounds, the NOLA tourist board offered up suggestions for three places. First, the Redfish Grill, located on Bourbon; get the BBQ Oysters at this casual dining place. Another casual place is Deanie’s Seafood, located on Iberville, which is a block from Canal Street. Seafood platters are a local favorite at the cozy diner.

Finally, a fine dining option where you can wash off the mud and dust and get into something fancy is Maximo’s Italian Grill. Located on Decatur Street, it’s a great place for pasta or a steak or a rack of lamb.

Hotel bars are also a great option. The classic Carisol Bar in the Hotel Monteleone (bar that looks like a carousel) has been recently renovated and is a must see.  The Sazerac bar at the Roosevelt Hotel is another not to be missed. The Burgundy Bar in the new Saint Hotel is a great music venue, with all of the traditional jazz music your ears desire.

Where to Stay

Hotels close to JazzFest go fast, so book early. The Fair Grounds are about a 10- minute drive away from the French Quarter.  Stay here or near Canal Street. The hotel sponsor this year's Fest is the Sheraton New Orleans, located on Canal Street. A shuttle bus, called the Jazz Fest Express leaves directly from the hotel.

If you cannot find a room in the French Quarter, your best bet is to look for a place in the in the Garden, Central Business or Warehouse Districts. All of these districts are an easy cab ride to the grounds. Faubourg Marigny is a residential area close to the French Quarter with other jazz venues and bed and breakfast accommodations.

If a bed and breakfast is more your style, check out one in the Garden District and French Quarter, like Creole Gardens, Fairchild House or Melrose Mansion.

Day-Sulley says Melrose Mansion, located on Frenchman Street, is ideal for the music lover.

“It’s a gorgeous place to stay.”

Click here for a complete listing of hotels providing discount rates in the area. Just call and ask for the JAZZ FEST RATE.

Getting Around

New Orleans isn't known for its efficient public transportation system.  But, for those who have a bit of time, take a ride on its famous street cars.  The Canal Street line takes you along 5.5 mile route from the French Market, to the Business District and into Mid-City, where the final stop is the New Orleans Museum of Art. For $1.25, the Canal Street Line takes you just a few blocks from the Fairgrounds Race Track.  You can also take the Jazz Fest Express --even if you're not staying at the Sheraton. It takes you directly to and from the Fair Grounds and has three pickup spots: the Sheraton New Orleans, the Steamboat Natchez Dock and City Park. The city bus system also takes you by the fairgrounds, which is a bit cheaper than the Jazz Fest Express.

Taxis are another viable option. Cab stands are located all over the city, and hotel bellmen are very helpful in getting you a cab. After the Fest, hundreds of cabs line up outside the Fair Ground gates to take visitors all over the city; they have a pretty efficient setup. New Orleans creates a special line from Canal Street to the Fair Grounds specifically for Jazz Fest. 

If you want to party, do not drive. You have too many options to get you where you need to be safely and in one piece.